Jerusalem, capital of Israel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Jerusalem, capital of Israel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Israel is confusing, yet exceptionally intriguing. Painfully emerging from an unprecedented political quandary, successfully handling the Covid-19 crisis, facing a daunting economic challenge, and clandestinely engaged in a major preventive confrontation with a nuclear-arsenal-seeking regional power, one would have expected the country to be disoriented, even dysfunctional.

Yet amid the noisy confrontations and continued complaints by practically everybody about virtually everything, Israelis expect that they will do much better than just muddle through. They are confident, not to say arrogant, because they have demonstrated so often their gift to turn the bitterest lemons into a sweet lemonade, and because even when they repeatedly failed, they picked themselves up and usually learned from their mistakes.

The coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease Covid-19 is a very different enemy from those threatening Israel’s security, but the principle is similar: faced with a seemingly insurmountable danger – go to the root of the problem and innovate. Seek not only a speedy, creatable and affordable cure and immune agents, but also data processing and behavior control, that will balance between medical effectiveness and civil liberties.

It’s only technologically different from guns, missiles, and cyberwar. The principle is the same: Challenge conventional thinking, do what the veterans of the Israeli army did when they invented Waze, Mobileye and Moovit, and sell it for billions to those who can appreciate the enormous economic benefit.

While each of these challenges and their respective responses deserves a separate discussion, the secret of Israel’s ability to cope with the cumulative effect of all of them is the most intriguing. To unlock it, one needs to distinguish between Israel’s malfunctioning political system on the one hand, and its innovative and resilient society on the other. Next, one needs to look at what Israel has accomplished, and completely disregard what Israelis say about themselves and their country.

What makes the Israelis so effective in crisis is a combination of a particularly low level of illusions and an exceptionally high level of resourcefulness, improvisation and resilience. More than any other well-to-do, developed democratic society, they anticipate things to go wrong, expect to be on their own when seeking a way out of their predicament, are grudgingly willing to take the punishments of a long struggle, and expect to be blamed and maligned when they contain the danger.

They have been used to all that throughout their recent history. Living in a failing, unstable and violent part of the world, having experienced constant wars and major terrorism for generations and repeatedly betrayed by European would-be comrades-in-values, most of them have few illusions about their immediate and more distant environment.

Their resilience is a product of the combination of harsh experience on the one hand, and their special bland of optimism and arrogance on the other. Their resourcefulness and improvisation skills developed, to a large extent, because they need them in a country where only few things work well and very few have the patience to follow through on anything.

In short: They do relatively well in a crisis because they live in a constant one under unpredictable circumstances, and they constantly expect the next crisis to be just around the corner.

And you should not trust them, particularly if they are educated and well-to-do, when they complain and make pessimistic predictions about Israel’s ability to deal with the crisis of the day. It’s just part of a harmless, twisted culture of the local elites: When you say that Israel is doomed, the economy is crumbling, democracy has shattered, government is incompetent, the health system is collapsing, values are prostituted and corruption is rampant, you are being cute and cool.

By conforming to this fashionable discourse, you prove to be a sophisticated and skeptical non-conformist. If you stick to a balanced and nuanced appraisal of Israel’s important achievements, many failures and painful shortcomings, you must have been brainwashed.

In about two years, after a serious economic setback, Israel will probably come out of this crisis stronger than before. Two possible events can prevent such an outcome: a major “second wave” of the pandemic that will dramatically disrupt the global economy, and a major war with Iran and its proxies.

In those cases, all bets are off. But short of such scenarios, Israel’s almost unmatched ability to adjust to change is likely to prove again what it demonstrated after the October 1973 war, after the “Second Intifada” of 2000-2005 and after the economic crisis at the end of the previous decade.

It will not be surprising if Israel does with the medical challenge what it did with the security challenge: benefit economically from what it suffered from. When Israel was hit by repeated conventional wars, it became one of the world’s top five arms exporters, but unlike other powers that also supplied major platforms, Israel focused on cutting-edge innovative technologies.

Faced with rampant all-embracing terrorism, Israel became a major exporter of security expertise. One of the top targets of cyberattacks, it became a cybersecurity superpower.

Israel’s innovative pharmaceutical industry and advanced tracking and automotive infrastructures are already at the forefront of developing groundbreaking responses to the Covid-19 challenge. If the world faces a containable “second wave” of this or another pandemic, Israel will be similarly harmed but better prepared than most other developed countries and more likely to share – for a good price – its home-made countermeasures.

Dan Schueftan

Dan Schueftan is the head of the International Graduate Program in National Security at the University of Haifa. He teaches advanced courses in strategic thinking in the Master Programs of Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. Schueftan regularly consults the top echelon of Israel's defense, foreign policy and intelligence communities, and briefs senior officials in Europe, the US and Asia.